Forget about 2012, the race for the White House in 2016 has already begun

Put your money on Hillary Clinton vs Chris Christie, says Nicholas Wapshott.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Getty Images

The 2012 presidential election is over; let the 2016 election begin! Without skipping a beat, the endless electoral process in the US has started over. It is the American equivalent of: “The king is dead. Long live the king.” It is why political junkies across the world love American politics. It never ends. So what do we know about the next race?

With Barack Obama still in the White House and unable to run again due to term limits, both parties are looking for a new candidate. In the Republican Party, it used to be that if you didn’t win the presidency one year, you could put yourself forward the next. Richard Nixon lost to John F Kennedy in 1960 but bounced back in 1968 to beat Hubert Humphrey. Now voters are so fickle and campaigns so punishing that you only get one shot. Americans don’t like losers and the electoral battlefield is strewn with the corpses of failed presidential candidates who overnight became unpersons. So bye-bye, Mitt. Missing you already. As F Scott Fitzgerald observed, there are no second acts in American lives.

Team Billary

Yet politicians who merely fail to win their party’s nomination can keep plugging away. Hillary Clinton was beaten to the punch by Obama in 2008 but is expected to run in 2016. That explains why Bill Clinton has been going hoarse urging voters to back Obama. With Romney in the White House, Hillary would find it hard to unseat him. So, she needed Romney to lose and there was no better way to ensure that than to set her husband on to him. Having loyally served Obama as secretary of state, Hillary expects the president to repay the compliment and back her bid. The general view among Democrats is that if Hillary wants the nomination, it’s hers. They feel that her impeccable performance as senator for New York, then at the state department, has repaired the reputation for divisiveness and aggression that she acquired when she was first lady. She will be 69 in 2016.

It is not quite that easy. The Clintons may be the first couple of Democratic politics but after Obama’s rope-a-dope in the Denver debate, Vice-President Joe Biden became a Democratic hero by upstaging and smothering his rival, Paul Ryan, in their televised debate. No one would begrudge Biden a run at the primaries. Despite failing in 1988, when he was caught plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock, and in 2008, when he lost out to Obama and Hillary, his ambition remains undimmed. He will be 74 in 2016.

Then there’s Andrew Cuomo, who as governor of New York has won widespread praise for working across the aisle to get things done in the state’s notoriously tricky assembly. He is the son of Mario Cuomo, the Italian-American former New York governor who is often spoken of by liberals as the greatest president America never had. Despite clamour for him to run for the White House, Cuomo Sr declined to enter the race in 1992. Cuomo Jr has no such inhibitions and his marriage, albeit now dissolved, to Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kerry adds to his allure as the scion of two great Democratic dynasties. Hillary’s people say Cuomo will stand aside if the Clintons ask him to but as an up-and-coming man in the party, he may feel he should put down a marker.

How Republicans respond to Romney’s defeat is more difficult to predict. They traditionally use Buggins’s turn to pick a candidate, which is how Romney floated to the top, having served time in the primaries. Republicans, however, are in a strange mood, one that those who witnessed the destructive inter­necine battles inside the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s will recognise.

The Republicans, like British Conservatives, used to be pragmatic people who would say and do anything to get elected. Since Reagan – and like the Tories since Thatcher – Republicans have been cursed by ideology. The Tea Party insurgency has all but driven out the moderate, centre-right “Rockefeller Republicans”, named after Nelson Rockefeller, whose fabulous wealth was accompanied by a strong sense of noblesse oblige.

The result is that in the 2012 primary races a variety of extreme conservatives, libertarians, curmudgeons, mavericks and nutcases volunteered to lead the Republican barmy army. The party finally chose Romney after the Republican establishment stepped in with millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads that brought down unappetising candidates such as Newt Gingrich capable of beating the only candidate they deemed electable. Even so, to win the primaries Romney had to present himself as a “severe conservative” and adopt extreme positions he then had to throw overboard as soon as the election campaign began in earnest.

Palin to insignificance

Expect the same in 2016. Forget Gingrich, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain, who are too shopworn. The social conservative Rick Santorum still has life in him and the blessing of Rupert Murdoch. Do not count out the ultra-eccentric and batty Michele Bachmann. Rand Paul will step into his father Ron Paul’s shoes to represent the growing number of Republican libertarians. Forget Sarah Palin. Her teasing will-she-won’t-she fan dance this year was her last trip on the political stage. She makes too much money to risk it all losing in the primaries. And she cannot overcome the negatives she acquired in 2008 when running alongside John McCain.

Paul Ryan was boosted by being picked by Romney as his running mate but he will suffer from being on the losing ticket. An avowed ideologue, he failed to give a single speech that offered a radical Republican vision. His complicity in Romney’s rush to the centre has disappointed the Tea Party members he once excited. Then there is George W’s moderate brother Jeb Bush, who would appeal to the middle ground. But, if they forgive him for praising Obama after Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey shore, my money for the Republican candidate is on Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and the most naturally gifted retail politician since Bill Clinton. So – Hillary v Christie? That would be a tight race.